The Advance and Retreat of a Shan Army

A Myanmar Commentary by Khun Say Lone*
03 May 2022
Article

As conflict and crisis continue in the aftermath of the SAC coup, political instability and uncertainty have swept many parts of the country. In this commentary, Khun Say Lone examines a dramatic succession of events in Shan State that have seen the RCSS, an NCA-signatory, forced to retreat by other ethnic armed organisations in the territory. Amidst allegations of “divide and rule”, he argues that unity is needed if the people are to end the cycles of conflict and build a better future.

RCSS troops on parade at Loi Tai Leng
RCSS troops on parade at Loi Tai Leng / Photo credit TNI

Two areas in Shan State came under heavy crossfire during February this year. Fighting broke out between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the combined forces of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and allied Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Namtu, Hsipaw, Kyaukme and Mong Kai townships. Meanwhile Tatmadaw forces under the military State Administration Council (SAC) engaged in fierce battles with the (Kokang) Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the northeast of the state, especially in the Mongko and Pangsai areas east of Muse town. High casualties were witnessed and reported by people living in these territories. Only small skirmishes occurred in other parts of Shan State from time to time, except in the Kayah-Shan State borders where anti-SAC resistance continues among local communities.

Origins of the RCSS movement

To understand the conflict between the RCSS and other ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), it is important to know the political background. The era of the former Mong Tai Army (MTA), established in 1985 by the notorious opium kingpin Khun Sa (Chang Shi Fu), cannot be overlooked in Shan history. By the late 1980s, the MTA reached a strength of over ten thousand soldiers, based in strongholds between Homong and Doi Lang along the Thailand border. But MTA commanders also sought to position troops in other parts of Shan State where they had personal connections.

Change came for the MTA after the military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) assumed power in 1988. The following year, the SLORC made ceasefires with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), MNDAA and other EAOs which, in 1989, mutinied from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) that controlled large amounts of territory along the China border. As competition between the MTA and UWSA grew, a famous fight – known as the Doi Lang battle – broke out as Wa forces attempted to capture the MTA headquarters with the help of the Tatmadaw on the Thailand border. Survivors recall the battle as a nightmare that developed over several years, with heavy casualties on both sides. The UWSA and MTA were in fierce rivalry for influence and control in Shan State politics.

The struggle, however, was not simply a straightforward fight between the MTA, UWSA and Tatmadaw. Other interests were involved. Also internationally infamous for drug-trafficking were the “Wei Brothers”, one of whom – Wei Xiao Kang – had been indicted by the USA along with Khun Sa. Although he had previously conducted business with Khun Sa, he was known to hold a grudge against the MTA, becoming a major rival to Khun Sa personally. After the UWSA’s 1989 formation, Wei Xiao Kang joined the new movement where he gained a powerful position in its southern operations. For this reason, local people assumed that the attack on Doi Lang was partly instigated by these motivations.

Important, too, was the influence of China. Following the UWSA’s establishment, Wa leaders retained close relations with officials in neighbouring China where the MTA was regarded with suspicion. In the MTA ranks were actors connected to Kuomintang (KMT) interests, who had become a part of the complex borderworld with Thailand during the Cold War. While KMT influence had declined during the 1980s, the MTA was still identified with US and Thailand interests from the perspective of Beijing. The UWSA enjoyed China’s tacit support.

Against this backdrop, a senior commander – Col. San Yod – broke away from the MTA in June 1995 with a large body of troops, establishing a Shan State National Army (SSNA) which agreed a ceasefire with the SLORC government. The split immediately had an adverse impact on the morale of MTA soldiers, raising questions of outlook and loyalty between those of Shan and Chinese ethnic backgrounds.

Equally critical, the SSNA made an alliance with the SSPP, a much older Shan EAO that still controlled territories in northern and central Shan State. Initially known as the Shan State Army (SSA), the SSPP was established by students in the 1960s and quickly became the leading political voice for the Shan cause. Over the years, the SSPP had also suffered splits and defections, losing territory in the south of Shan State to the MTA. This had seen the SSPP leadership in northern Shan State become close to the CPB, and subsequently UWSA, and in 1989 the SSPP followed the UWSA and other ex-CPB groups into agreeing a ceasefire with the SLORC government. The SSPP and SSNA now established a “Shan State Peace Committee”, further affecting the morale of MTA soldiers.

With pressures growing on all sides, Khun Sa and the MTA leadership surrendered to the Tatmadaw on 7 January 1996 in exchange for peace. It was estimated that more than 10,000 troops laid down their arms under this agreement. However, the sudden surrender without any prior planning or preparation led to total chaos among MTA members in different parts of Shan State. Several MTA commanders were granted militia (pyithusit) status by the SLORC, being provided business concessions and local territories under Tatmadaw authority, some of which are still operational today. But most families and troops were thrust into a precarious situation where they were no longer sure what would happen to them and how they were going to support themselves.

Little noticed, too, not all MTA members accepted Khun Sa’s decision. In response, a group of younger officers, led by Yawd Serk, broke away to set up a new force, the RCSS, which came from a Shan nationalist wing among the MTA’s founders.** Initially known by their former name of Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA), they sought to regalvanize support among the MTA’s former rank-and-file. While the SLORC government covered the needs of high-ranking officers, there was no welfare provision for ex-combatants who were scattered, facing social difficulties and lacking in livelihood skills unlike ordinary civilians. There were no rehabilitation programmes. With breakdown continuing, the former SURA movement was remobilised in the south and southwest of Shan State in little time.

Yawd Serk, meanwhile, also attempted to reach out to the SSPP and SSNA in other parts of Shan State to discuss the possible unification of all Shan armed groups under the same flag. Opinion is divided on what was actually agreed. A mooted idea was a territorial split in control areas between the SSPP in north of the state and the SURA in the south, with a joint movement to be known as the Shan State Organisation. Ultimately, nothing was decided.

Further plans for a Shan resistance revival were then interrupted by a major Tatmadaw offensive which was designed to prevent Shan nationality forces from uniting. A dark moment in Shan history followed. More than 2,000 villages were destroyed in Tatmadaw “Four Cuts” operations during the 1996-97 period in the Kunhing and Mong Pan areas in central Shan State. As a result, more than 300,000 people lost their homes, becoming internally-displaced, refugees or migrating into Thailand.

At the time, these events were little reported in the international community. There were no global media headlines, and there was a major shortfall in humanitarian aid for suffering peoples. The Tatmadaw offensive, however, was counter-productive in suppressing nationalist feelings. Both Shan revolutionaries and the local Shan public believed that they were attacked because they could not defend themselves after the MTA’s breakdown and surrender. People believed that they were being victimized simply for not having guns.

There followed a turbulent time in Shan politics. The SLORC government, superseded in 1997 by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), continued to exert pressures on the different Shan movements. The ceasefire SSNA set up headquarters in the Khai Sin area near Pang Nyu in Hsipaw township, with troops deployed across northern Shan State. The Tatmadaw, however, started to entangle the SSNA from all sides to try and force them to surrender or take militia status after Sao Kan Yod passed away. Subsequently, one troop under the leadership of Sao Kanna laid down their arms in Hsenwi (Theinni) township. Similar pressures were exerted by the Tatmadaw on the ceasefire SSPP, which also lost territory during the SLORC-SPDC era due to troop defections.

Matters then came to a head in May 2005 when the SPDC intended to take down the SSNA headquarters. In response, the SSNA commander, Major Sai Yi, retreated with his troops into southern Shan State, and the ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw was effectively dissolved. Subsequently, the remnant SSNA force – with a history of presence in northern Shan State – joined with the RCSS in the Thailand borderlands, increasing its troop strength and firepower.

The political and security situation, however, remained complicated in the field. There were a patchwork of militia groups in different Shan nationality areas as well as the two main EAOs of the ceasefire SSPP and non-ceasefire RCSS. In 1999, the SURA was renamed as the RCSS, and it was from this time that the two groups became colloquially known as the “Shan State Army-North” (SSPP) and “Shan State Army-South” (RCSS).

The 2015 NCA: a time of change in Shan politics

In 2008 the military government of the SLORC-SPDC finished drafting a constitution before calling a general election in 2010. President U Thein Sein and a group of military colleagues then changed out of their uniforms to implement a new system of quasi-civilian government in March 2011. Parallel to these events, U Thein Sein launched a new peace process as soon as he took the office. This was a key development in the conflict-divided country, and it was followed by a series of ceasefires and peace negotiations with the SSPP, RCSS, UWSA and other EAOs that were relatively – though not entirely – inclusive.

For the next few years, peace talks fluctuated up and down amidst many challenges and frequent deadlocks before a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was drawn up in 2015. At the time, it was no longer certain that the Thein Sein government would gain another term in office, and officials were desperate to conclude the peace process before their administration came to an end. Only the RCSS, however, and seven other EAOs were prepared to sign on 15 October 2015, with a majority of EAOs still undecided or, in some cases, excluded by the Tatmadaw. Notably, EAOs like the SSPP, UWSA and Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) were still not satisfied even though they had been involved in the negotiation process along the way.

A new division thus began to occur. After signing the NCA, it seemed that the RCSS had gained a license from the Tatmadaw to operate openly in the country. Indeed, many urban areas were opened up to RCSS officials that had been closed in the past, and they were granted opportunities to visit and talk with electoral parties and other organisations in politics and society. Such access had not seemed possible for the RCSS before accepting the peace accord.

Subsequently, the NCA was continued by the next government, headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. After taking office, leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) rebranded Thein Sein’s peace process as the “21st Century Panglong Peace Conference” to put their own imprint on the peace accord. The NLD, however, was also unable to persuade the SSPP and most other EAOs to come on board as signatories. While the NLD was in office, only two more EAOs signed the NCA, the New Mon State Party and Lahu Democratic Union, bringing the total number of EAO signatories to ten.

The NCA also failed to bring in a new era of peace and stability. The Tatmadaw’s exclusion of several EAOs from NCA discussions, notably the TNLA, MNDAA and Arakan Army (AA), was a particular sticking point. At the same time, there was no end to conflict in several parts of the country, especially Kachin, Rakhine and northern Shan States. Meanwhile, having paved a political path through elections and the 2008 constitution, the Tatmadaw started constant and hostile pressures against EAOs to lay down their arms. As part of this strategy, the drive was stepped up for EAOs to accept the status of militia or Border Guard Forces if they were reluctant to give up their weapons.

Among the EAOs targeted, the SSPP encountered intense pressures to transform, which led to a division in perceptions among members and troops. With discussions failing among the party leadership, two of the SSA’s brigades – 3 and 7 – agreed to transition into local militia, while only Brigade 1 remained of the original SSPP/SSA formations. At the same time, the SSA’s Sein Kyaw base in Hsipaw township and Karli base in Kunhing township were transformed into militia outposts, and the Ong Mu base in Kyaukme township was disbanded. This left the SSPP’s Wan Hai headquarters in Kyethi township as the main stronghold under SSA control. Despite the continuance of the 1989 ceasefire, the Tatmadaw launched a major offensive in 2015 to try and capture Wan Hai because of the SSPP’s refusal to transform into a militia. SSPP leaders recall that the battle was very intense. But ultimately, they were able to defend their headquarters in the end.

The SSPP, however, remained under great pressures. As political transition continued, the SSA’s Brigade 1 was overloaded with challenges to try and keep the SSPP’s once extensive territories under control in terms of administration, mobilization and troop deployment. Little noted, too, there were people in the north of the state who began to look to the RCSS in the Thailand borders for support, and many youths from the Lashio, Hsenwi, Muse and Namkham areas travelled to southern Shan State and enlisted themselves in the RCSS for military service. The ethno-political momentum was changing.

Following the NCA signing, all of these factors appeared to come together to encourage the RCSS leadership to try and move further north in the state into areas that had formerly been under the control of the SSNA. The potential of economic growth in China-Myanmar trade and improved transportation along the Mandalay-Muse highway were also triggers, and RCSS leaders knew of the importance of relationships with China from the time of the MTA surrender. In promotion of this strategy, RCSS leaders justified to themselves that they were only seeking to regain territories that the SSNA had previously administered. But many observers considered it an audacious move.

Opinions differ at to what happened next. During the first stages of the mobilization and transportation of RCSS troops from the south to north of the state, it was claimed that prior understanding had been sought with SSPP leaders. It was also said that, initially, the RCSS had good relations with the SSPP’s allies, notably the TNLA and KIO, during these first deployments. On this basis, RCSS units were able to extend their presence to Kyaukme, Hsipaw and Namtu townships by stationing troops in the Mai Kai (Mong Kaing) area as well as building up a strong presence in the Huu Soon area, Hsipaw township.

Any honeymoon period, however, did not last long. Clashes and skirmishes between RCSS and SSPP forces began to break out, and multiple attempts at mediation by different actors were executed but they never led to an agreement between leaders of the two parties. Unresolved issues related to troop deployments, new recruitments and local administration, and these gradually turned into serious disputes. As tensions deepened, SSPP village administrators were deliberately substituted with RCSS-appointed officials in some districts, adding to the burdens on local residents. In essence, they now had to support – or choose between – two Shan forces: the SSPP and RCSS.

Equally divisive, clashes with the TNLA, a close SSPP ally, began to intensify as the months went by. In Shan State, the SSPP has long been allied with a number of nationality EAOs, including the TNLA, KIO, MNDAA, UWSA and AA, which in 2017 formed a Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) among NCA non-signatory movements in the northeast of the country. There is a history of inter-ethnic cooperation, and a number of Ta’ang leaders were once part of the SSA movement in northern Shan State. Indeed one Ta’ang commander, Sai Hso Lane (Hla Aung) became SSPP president. Adding to the complexity, the SSPP has a formation of predominantly Wa troops in Tang Yan township.

Very quickly, the conflict landscape turned from bad to worse as the SSPP became caught in the middle of battles between the RCSS and TNLA. In parts of Namtu township, especially, SSPP soldiers shared military outposts with TNLA troops, and collateral fighting between the RCSS and TNLA-SSPP forces became inevitable.

Adding to local distrust and resentment, accusations emerged that the Tatmadaw was involved in the initial transportation of RCSS troops to the north. It was also claimed that the Tatmadaw took control of some SSPP outposts on the ground, staying only a couple of days before allowing the RCSS to take over. Inevitably, such tactics and behaviour created misunderstandings and doubts between RCSS and SSPP supporters, with rumours spreading that the Tatmadaw was secretly reinforcing the RCSS with ammunition. Five years later, these allegations were reversed, and this time it was claimed that the Tatmadaw opened up roads for the SSPP and TNLA to transport their troops towards the southern border to chase the RCSS out when it was retreating from the north.

Such stories and events highlight how SSPP and RCSS members, who were once friends, came to fight against each other as bitter enemies. In reality, both EAOs were in ceasefires with the government: the RCSS as a signatory to the NCA and the SSPP in a bilateral ceasefire since 1989 which was renewed in 2011. And government officials know that both EAOs continued to have a close contact and relationship with the commander and deputy commander of the Tatmadaw’s Eastern Central Region Command, based in Kho Lam.

For these reasons, military analysts have long assessed that the Tatmadaw plays the tactics of “divide and rule” by deliberately creating the conditions of conflict to provoke different parties to fight each other in order to prevent the opening up of new battle-fronts against the government. Small clashes continued in northern Shan State during 2020 when political affairs across the country were dominated by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and November general election. These allegations of “divide and rule” then swiftly revived in the aftermath of the February 2021 coup by the State Administration Council (SAC). National politics were now turned completely upside down by the SAC takeover.

The SAC coup: a new era of volatility

Political structures and relationships in both Shan State and Myanmar more broadly were dramatically transformed by the SAC coup. With NLD leaders in detention, a succession of new organisations emerged to resist the oppression and military crackdown, including the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), National Unity Government (NUG) and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), in many parts of the country. Overburdened with tackling the challenges of the Spring Revolution and new cycle of armed movements, political analysts believe that, from the outset, Tatmadaw strategists resumed the tactic of fuelling conflict between Shan EAOs in order to keep them busy fighting one another and to prevent them making alliance with the new PDFs.

Yawd Serk addressing troops on Shan National Day
Yawd Serk addressing troops on Shan National Day / Photo credit TNI

As in the past, other factors also came into play. As ceasefires began to break down or come under strain, a political executive known as the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) was revived by the RCSS and other EAO NCA-signatories to try and maintain unity and keep the peace accord alive. Other EAOs, however, were also highly vigilant, and SSPP, TNLA and UWSA leaders in the FPNCC alliance in northern Shan State considered whether this was time to move against the RCSS whose position was uncertain. Tensions rapidly began to build.

Adding to the pressures, there were many rumours about the role of China which continued to keep doors open to the SSPP, UWSA and other FPNCC members. As the South China Sea dispute highlights, “back door” security is very critical for Chinese strategists, and the connection of oil and gas pipelines between Yunnan Province and the Indian Ocean has become a significant geopolitical asset for Beijing during the past decade. Any look at a map shows the importance of the Myanmar “back door” through the Shan State during a turbulent political time.

For the moment, the RCSS and PPST have taken no public position on their relationship with the CRPH and NUG, both of which are viewed as “pro-Western” in Beijing. But after Yawd Serk, then the PPST’s interim leader, was reported to be in contact with the CRPH and NUG, reports circulated that Chinese officials did not want to see a perceived pro-Western alliance forming close to its territory. “No US-made M-16 will be seen along the Shan-China border” was a reported claim.

Events now moved quickly. Under pressure from their rivals, RCSS troops retreated from all their positions between Namkham and Muse townships, immediately being substituted by SSPP soldiers. This was followed by a major offensive in both manpower and firepower, launched from the Namtu area and spreading into Hsipaw, Kyaukme, Kyethi, Mai Kai, Laikha and Panglong townships to the south. Eventually, it was reported in March that RCSS forces had withdrawn south of Taunggyi, essentially back into base areas along the Thai border from where their post-2015 advance had started. It marked a stunning retreat.

Notably, during this time there appeared to be no military engagement or objection by Tatmadaw units, which sat back and watched along the way. Only when SSPP forces reached to Panglong township did SAC officers seek to draw a territorial line in talks with SSPP representatives. Meanwhile UWSA forces also pressed in from the east towards the RCSS headquarters at Loi Tai Leng, Mong Ton township, on the Thailand border. A number of fatalities were reported in early clashes.

And this, for the moment, is where the Shan landscape currently stands. While political breakdown continues in Myanmar at large, the RCSS has been forced to retreat from the territories in northern Shan State where it sought to advance following its signing of the 2015 NCA. In making this attempt, it appears to have few allies. On the surface, too, the recent battle has looked like a struggle between nationality movements based on the China and Thailand borders. Certainly, the RCSS has enjoyed cross-border support from Thailand in the past. Today, though, this has declined while China maintains bridges to FPNCC members, notably the UWSA. But deeper complexities remain, including the struggle between the SAC and NUG, and it would be wrong to see nationality parties in Shan State as simply proxies for outside interests. They want to take control of their own destiny.

Above all, the peoples of Shan State want peace, justice and equality. During a time of suffering and volatility, this commentary has sought to highlight the advance and retreat of a Shan nationality force based upon the Thai border to and from the northern Shan State. For the cycles of conflict and state failure to be addressed, it is vital that lessons are learned and that communities work together in common spirit to build a better future for their peoples. The mistakes of the past should not be repeated.

* Khun Say Lone is the pseudonym of a local Shan analyst.

** The MTA grew out of the 1985 formation of a Tailand Revolutionary Council which brought together the Shan United Army of Khun Sa, the Shan United Revolutionary Army, headed by Gon Jerng (Mo Heing), and a SSPP breakaway group in southern Shan State.